2 out of 4 stars
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Words Without Song is a collection of poetry by Martin Knox. Many of the poems focus on social justice issues. In his preface, Knox explains: “In my poetry I try to highlight the issues which I see as potentially catastrophic for humanity.” He adds that his purpose is to “try to raise awareness, of the many enormous injustices in the world . . . without, at the same time, fully interpreting the poems for the reader.”
Knox has an extensive vocabulary that is used to great effect in his poetry. His wordplay is often clever, as when he speaks of the extinction of species across the globe so the rich can get richer: “The damage continues/Assisted by mindless kleptocrats.” (“Kelly’s Crag,” page 123.) His descriptions are, at times, a mastery of elegant understatement, as in his description of a woman lighting a cigarette in “The Woman on the 229 Bus,” which states:
The smoke is going south:
Emphysema vicariously planned.
Knox writes for an erudite audience. This can be delightful, adding depths of meaning for the reader to suss out. For example, in “The Ostler,” the protagonist is described as “Jealous/Dog in the manger . . . An uninvited runner on the track/Of Love/Of the landlord’s daughter/Jess.” To anyone who has ever read “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, this is a clear reference to “Tim the ostler,” “dumb as a dog,” who loved “Bess, the landlord’s daughter.” In “The Death of Cleopatra,” the line “to go gently into that good night” is an obvious reminder of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
But this very element makes for an extremely narrow audience, which is why I cannot give it more than two out of four stars. It’s all well and good to not fully interpret the poems for the reader. It’s another thing entirely to write so obscurely even an educated reader cannot understand the intended inference. For example, in “Indoctrination at the Moral Sciences Club, Cambridge 1946” Knox provides a YouTube link to explain the event that inspired the poem. But even with that information, it’s hard to draw a correlation from the event to the words on the page.
Sadly, his wordplay often leaves clever behind and crosses into the nonsensical as in “Pandering to Illusions,” where he writes of “A world of vain illusions/And arrogant contusions.” Nice rhyming, but how can a bruise be arrogant? In “A Man Walking His Dog,” the poem opens with:
I met a man in the woods today
In a chiral, handedness kind of way:
We had so much in common-
Large, large tracts of our asymmetric DNA.
Depending upon which definition of “chiral” you use, the phrase is either redundant or contradictory. "Chiral" pertains to the hands anyway, and in chemistry, chirality is when a molecule cannot be superimposed on its mirror image. This definition actually contradicts the point emphasized in the rest of the poem.
Too often, the audience is so narrow that only Knox himself knows what he is talking about. In “Science, Religion and Urban Myths on the Wild Atlantic Way,” Knox states:
For original, brazen thought
Is sparse, thin and bare,
And has been since Cambrensis’ day,
Or since Berkeley
Had his say.
And which Berkeley would that be? The philosopher, George Berkeley, who died in 1753? Or Sir Lawrence Berkeley who died in 1458? Or some other Berkeley entirely? Without knowing of whom Knox speaks, the impact on the reader is lost. This occurs repeatedly throughout the entire book.
The book is professionally edited with only a handful of typos. Most of the points that caught my eye were simply stylistic differences. This collection really needs another round of editing for content, weeding out poems that have significance only to the poet. If you are a physicist, a geneticist, or a chemical engineer and you love poetry, then you would probably understand and enjoy most of the poems in this collection. But even then, there are a number of poems explicable only to Knox himself. That is unfortunate as these distract from the handful of truly brilliant poems this collection also contains.
Words Without Song
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